WIMBLEDON – There’s a stark contrast as this year’s Wimbledon gets under way.
The gentlemen’s champion is a homeboy – a brand-new, more than life-sized photo of him holding the trophy on Centre Court a year ago right outside the practice courts commemorates that fact.
On the opposite end of that trend is the “ladies’ champion”, who is here but who is most definitely retired and planning to play in the legends’ event next week.
British hero Andy Murray of Scotland is the name on everyone’s lips around the All-England Club. Because it’s not enough to break a 76-year-old title drought, it would be SO lovely if he could manage it again.
But Murray is not the favorite.
Meanwhile, Marion Bartoli of France tried a tournament or two after winning a Wimbledon title no one – including probably Marion Bartoli – ever thought she could dream of winning.
But really, what can you possibly do for an encore once you’ve achieved the impossible?
She’s so far away from her form of a year ago at the moment that she had to retire from an exhibition match earlier this week, her shoulder wrapped up like a mini-mummy.
So, it goes without saying, she's also not the favorite to repeat. Then again, even if she were still playing, she still wouldn't be the favorite.
And so, as this year’s edition begins, we’re back to the usual storyline on the women’s side: if Serena Williams is healthy, hungry and motivated – and she said Saturday she’s all three of those things – she’s the odds-on top contender.
Then there’s French Open champion Maria Sharapova, trying to accomplish one of the more rare doubleheaders in the game: win the French Open, then come to the grass and win Wimbledon just three weeks later.
It’s been a decade since Sharapova, then just 17, won an unexpected title. A year ago, shoulder woes took her out.
This year, she finds herself in the same quarter as Williams – always her nemesis, and seemingly always in her way. Then again, Williams was in her way at the French Open. Except Williams didn’t make the date.
As for Murray, bumped up to the No. 3 seed from his No. 5 ATP Tour ranking because of the grass-court seeding system Wimbledon uses for the men, the pressure is off, in a sense.
The fatalistic British tennis fans may have always believed that Fred Perry would remain the last Brit to win the tournament, back in the 1930s. That Murray pulled it off in 2013 (with the help of early exits from former champions Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer) was such an emotional experience their collective ticker might not even be able to stand a repeat.
The first question posed to Murray at his champion’s press conference went like this:
“You may have heard there's a football tournament going on in Brazil at the moment, and England hasn't done very well. How does it feel to have the hopes of a despondent nation on your shoulders?”
“I think if you win a tournament like this, I feel like you get the benefits, you feel the benefits later in the tournament because you know what it takes and you know how to handle the latter stages of a tournament like this,” he said. “But I think always when you come back to a Grand Slam, there's always nerves and pressure there before you start the event. I feel fairly similar to last year.”
Here are some quotes from some of the favorites on both the men’s and women’s sides.
“I am feeling better this year than last couple years, seriously. Personally I feel that I am doing the things better. I am able to move myself more free now. I'm not scared about my knee. That's the most important thing for me. … But then is true that for the last couple of years I didn't play lot of matches on grass. But I am confident that I can do it again. Not talking about win, talking about play better than what I did last couple of years on grass.”
“I think this tournament may have some surprises, like it was last year. You had (Jerzy) Janowicz and (Lukasz) Kubot in quarters, Janowicz in semis; Nadal and Federer went out in the first couple rounds. As I said, it's very tricky for top players. Still you don't feel very comfortable. The players you are playing against who are lower ranked, they have played a tournament or two before coming in. So they have more matches. They have nothing to lose. They have this confidence about them on the court. I wouldn't say it's so obvious that the usual suspects will reach the final stages.”
“I feel good. When I came here, I just felt a sense of being home. I really like being here.”
“Once I think about it actually (winning in 2004), the memory is quite fresh in my mind. I don't think about that victory very often. Just sometimes when I need a little pick-me-up or when I look back at my achievements. When I do think about it, it seems so fresh and it seems like it almost happened yesterday. It's been 10 years and I'm here, yeah, still competing at a high level and still have the motivation. I certainly had that drive when I was 17 years old, and I'm proud that I still have that going into this age group, you call it. Still going out and competing and loving what I do so much.”
“I mean, I feel like, yeah, if things click here, yeah, I should be able to win the tournament here; whereas at the French I feel like I'm slightly more dependent on Rafa. He's the only guy really. … I feel I have a very good chance again this year. I hope to utilize my fitness, the amount of matches I've played this year. So I'm really coming in with a much better feeling than maybe in the last year, for instance.”